From carrot fibre to plant-based kefir: How 3 start-ups are targeting a healthier gut

The trend in gut health​ is everywhere and consumers are looking for products that will benefit their microbiomes.

But gut health is far more complex than meets the eye. The gut microbiome influences how we function in an array of different ways, and provides an inordinate amount of potential for entrepreneurs.

Here, we look at just three of the many start-ups taking advantage of the gut microbiome’s enormous potential.

Prebiotic fibres from carrots

Carrots are famous for helping people see in the dark (a reputation which is perhaps not entirely true​), but one thing that you can get from them, according to Dutch ingredients start-up NutriLeads, is gut health benefit.

The company creates its main ingredient from upcycled carrot pomace, which it sources from around Europe, and then unlocks from it the rhamnogalacturonan-I or cRG-I. Some studies, for example one published in the journal Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy​ funded by NutriLeads, have demonstrated the benefits of rhamnogalacturonan-I.

According to Joana Carneiro-Wakefield, the company’s CEO, the ingredient “has a complex molecular structure that selectively nourishes beneficial bacteria prevalent in most people. [It] ensures robust, consistent and predictable gut health benefits, regardless of individual differences in gut microbiota composition.”

Prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics

The phrases ‘prebiotics’, ‘probiotics’ and ‘postbiotics’ are used frequently within the food industry. But what do they mean?

Prebiotics​ are food for microbes which already exist within the gut. Probiotics​ are live bacteria, introduced into the gut. Postbiotics​ are essentially the waste left over by prebiotics and probiotics after the gut has digested them.

The fermentation of the ingredient requires “collaboration (cross feeding) between a specialised consortia of gut bacteria, including strains linked with diverse health benefits. In this way, [it] selectively targets beneficial microorganisms prevalent in most people.”

According to Carneiro-Wakefield, the ingredient is sensed by innate immune cells in the gut, training them to respond better when challenged. For example, she suggested, it can reduce symptom severity and duration in a common cold.

It also significantly increases production of short chain fatty acids, and increases beneficial gut microrganisms including Bifidobacterium spp.​ (B. longum​ and B. adolescentis​), and anti-inflammatory species (e.g., F. prausnitzii, A. hallii, R. hominis​).

While carrots have many key benefits, it is NutriLeads’ extraction technology that unlocks its benefits for the microbiome.

“Carrots are rich in vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients. However, cRG-I remains locked within the carrot cell wall, offering limited health benefits as it passes through the digestive system. NutriLeads’ proprietary, natural extraction method frees cRG-I, enabling it to foster the growth of beneficial gut microorganisms.”

Carrots are the main source of NutriLeads’ ingredient. Image Source: Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt

Plant-based kefir for vegan gut health

Kefir is far from niche. Many brands, such as Yeo Valley and Biotiful in the UK, have released kefir drinks.

Kefir is a fermented milk-based drink originating from Western Asia. It is known for its benefits to gut health, such as, according to UK personalised nutrition start-up Zoe, increasing the diversity of the gut microbiome.

While kefir is normally made with milk, some companies are making it plants. Biotiful has branched out into plant-based kefir, as has Latvian start-up Fermentful. The latter makes its kefir from green buckwheat.

Fermentful’s drinks contain prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics, Anda Penka, the company’s co-founder and CEO, told FoodNavigator.

“Probiotics help balance the gut microbiota, improve digestion, nutrient absorption, strengthen the gut lining, reduce inflammation, and support overall immune function.

“Prebiotics in green buckwheat, such as resistant starch and oligosaccharides, nourish beneficial gut bacteria, maintain a healthy gut environment, and improve gut barrier function. The prebiotics in green buckwheat reach the colon undigested, serving as food for beneficial gut bacteria and supporting their growth.

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Fermentful makes vegan kefir. Image Source: Getty Images/ Alex Potemkin

“Additionally, postbiotics like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as butyrate, created during the fermentation of green buckwheat fibres, play a significant role in improving gut barrier function and reducing inflammation.”

As well as conferring strong gut health benefits, green buckwheat also has several good health properties, Penka told us. For example, it’s high in protein, contains rutin (a flavonoid with antioxidant properties), and has nutrients such as iron, magnesium, and B-complex vitamins. Furthermore, it is gluten free and has a low glycaemic index.

It’s also ‘renowned’ for having sustainable cultivation methods, Penka told us. “It is frequently employed in regenerative farming practices due to its remarkable capacity to absorb phosphorus and potassium from the soil, while simultaneously enhancing soil quality with essential nutrients. Moreover, green buckwheat cultivation doesn’t necessitate synthetic nitrogen or chemical fertilisers.”

Fermentful’s drinks are carefully assessed, with the company aiming to ensure that they provide tangible health benefits. “We prioritise comprehending the health advantages of our product, which is why we collaborate with food technologists, scientists, and biotechnologists to precisely assess the proportion of specific microorganisms in Fermentful drinks and their potential effects on health. Our Fermentful products undergo testing in artificial gut environments to evaluate probiotic absorption,” Penka told us.

As a dairy-free kefir, Fermentful must focus not only on providing consumers with gut bacteria but also with taste, texture and nutrients, which may come naturally to dairy products but not always to their plant-based alternatives. According to Penka, this can be achieved with minimal ingredients.

“We use only three ingredients and avoid adding stabilisers, gums, or starch to achieve thickness and creaminess naturally,” she told us.

“Our technology processes allow us to create a 100% clean label product. We exclusively use organic ingredients as part of our commitment to environmental friendliness. Our Fermentful drinks contain 2.5g of protein per 100 ml, similar to regular milk kefir.”

However, developing plant-based kefir does present some challenges, with the primary one being formulating the ‘ideal blend’ of microorganisms and ingredients. “Fermentation, being a biodynamic process, offers some predictability but also introduces unknowns, especially in terms of taste properties.

“Once the formulation is finalised, our focus shifts to ensuring consistent quality and an acceptable shelf life. While pasteurised products pose minimal concerns in this regard, rhamnogalacturonan-I or cRG-I maintaining the live culture in unpasteurised versions is challenging, requiring a scientific approach for preservation.”

Helping babies thrive in the first 1,000 days

The first 1,000 days are often considered the most important for a baby’s development. The microbiome, being highly influential on so many aspects of human health, is key to this development.

UK-based start-up Little Incas provides quinoa-based food for babies, aimed at helping their gut microbiota to develop. The first 1,000 days of a baby’s life is the most important part of this development.

The first 1000 days

The first 1,000 days​ doesn’t start at birth. It spans the period of time roughly from conception to the child’s second birthday. Described by UNICEF as ‘the brain’s window of opportunity’, the period is vital for cognitive health, the immune system and a myriad of other things.

“During the first 1,000 days of life, crucial factors like early microbial colonisation, maternal health, nutrition, antibiotic use, among others, all play a role in shaping the infant’s gut microbiome, influencing immune, gut, and brain health,” Erick Vera, CEO and founder of Little Incas, told FoodNavigator.

“Establishing a healthy gut microbiome early on is vital for reducing the risk of diseases like obesity, asthma, and allergies later in life. This is particularly relevant for infants, because the first 1,000 days of life are when the gut microbial population is established. Critically, disruption to the microbiota and reduced microbial diversity can affect the cognitive and behavioural development of children, potentially contributing to poorer health in later life.”

This makes ingredients such as quinoa, which according to Vera, has prebiotic functionality, a particularly good fit for babies. “This is one of the key reasons that quinoa makes such a great fertiliser for a baby’s gut microbiota…. all the teeny tiny friendly bacteria and organisms that live in their digestive system that help to keep their tummies happy and the immune systems healthy.”

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Little Incas aims to help babies develop through gut health. Image Source: Getty Images/Liudmila Chernetska

“Fibre provides the vital food for the baby’s gut microbiota – they literally munch up the fibre in your baby’s food, and then go on to produce special compounds called short chain fatty acids, which help maintain a healthy digestive system and promote overall gut health. These short chain fatty acids also help to balance the immune system, and influence how we use fat and sugar and produce energy from our diet.” Quinoa also contains phytochemicals like polyphenols which act as prebiotics.

One particularly important gut bacteria is Bifidobacterium. According to Vera, a reduction in Bifidobacterium can increase a baby’s chances of developing diabetes, obesity, metabolic disorders and all-cause mortality later in life. Thus it is important that this reduction does not take place.

Conversely, the presence of the bacteria can promote digestion, absorption of vital nutrients and overall gut microbiota development in a baby. Certain strains have also been shown to bolster the immune system, reduce colic symptoms, regulate bowel movements and prevent constipation, and process anti-inflammatory properties.

“The establishment of a stable gut microbiota generally occurs soon after birth, during lactation, and results in dominance of the gut microbiota by Bifidobacteria. Therefore, in early life, Bifidobacterium can effectively improve the health of the infant, whether they are premature infant or term infant,” Vera told us.

“Scientific evidence has demonstrated that whole grains and dietary fibre are important for the fermentation characteristics in the large intestine, drawing more and more attention to quinoa and quinoa polysaccharides. The results of the study indicate that quinoa polysaccharides can be considered prebiotic due to their ability to increase Bifidobacterium.”